Roussel, Nelly (1878–1922)

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Roussel, Nelly (1878–1922)

Advocate of women's rights, one of France's finest orators of her time, who was a leading proponent of birth control and "integral" feminism. Pronunciation: NELL-ee roo-SELL. Born in Paris, France, on January 5, 1878; died in Paris of tuberculosis on December 18, 1922; educated at elementary school and by herself at home; married Henri Godet (b. 1863), in 1898; children: daughter Mireille Godet and son Marcel Godet (born between 1899 and 1904); another son (b. 1901, died in infancy).

Converted to left-wing causes following marriage to Henri Godet (1898); experienced three exceptionally difficult childbirths (1899–1904); met Paul Robin, the leading advocate of birth control ("neo-Malthusianism," 1900); went on tours lecturing on birth control and women's rights (1901–13); testified at the trial of Hervé and other anti-militarists (1905); brought a lawsuit against L'Autorité but lost (1906–07); opposed the war (1914–18); testified at Hélène Brion's trial for antiwar activities (1918); wrote and spoke against the advocates of large families (neo-natalists) and for women's suffrage (1919–22); started a school to train women speakers (1920).


Par la révolte (introduction by Sebastien Faure, privately printed, 1903); Quelques discours (privately printed, 1907); Quelques lances rompus pour nos libertés (preface by É. Darnaud, Paris: Giard & Brière, 1910); Pourquoi elles vont à l'Église? Comédie en un acte (privately printed, 1910); Paroles de combat et d'espoir (preface by Madeleine Vernet, Paris: Éditions de l'Avenir social, 1919); (poetry) Ma Forêt (Paris: Éditions de l'Avenir social, 1921); Trois conférences (preface by Mme O. Laguerre, Paris: Giard, 1930); Derniers combats, recueil d'articles et de discours (preface by Han Ryner, Paris: Imprimerie l'Émancipatrice, 1932); L'Éternelle sacrificé (translated by Jette Kjaer, edited by Maïté Albistur and Daniel Armogast, Paris: Syros, 1979).


some 200 articles in 46 newspapers and periodicals, e.g., Paris qui passe (her first article, Oct. 29, 1899), Le Libertaire (S. Faure), La Fronde (Marguerite Durand), Le Petit Almanach féministe illustré, L'Action (Henri Béranger; her most prolific outlet: 60 articles, Jan. 26, 1904–Nov. 21, 1908), Régénération, Rénouvation, Génération consciente, Le Néo-Malthusien, Le Journal des femmes (Marie Martin), La Femme affranchie (Gabrielle Petit), L'Équité, La Voix des femmes (Colette Reynaud; her most frequent outlet after the war), La Mère éducatrice (Madeleine Vernet), La Libre Pensée International (of Lausanne).

At age 35, Nelly Roussel's mother (a "sensitive and timorous" woman, according to Nelly's daughter) had married into a monied Parisian professional family. Nelly was born in 1878 and grew up with all the advantages of her station yet seems not to have put great store by them. She was raised as a devout Catholic and educated through the elementary level. But at age 15, her parents ended her schooling, as was customary for girls. By nature friendly and extroverted, she now felt bitterly frustrated, for she was also very bright and studious. To end her education simply because she was a female struck her as a rank injustice.

Roussel had, however, a sympathetic grandfather who had urged her to read widely on her own. He also inspired her with his passion for the theater and encouraged her to become perhaps an actress—a calling thought not altogether respectable in her social milieu. Whether she received any formal training is unclear. That she had a natural talent for acting is undeniable; it contributed greatly to her success as an orator.

At age 20, Nelly met Henri Godet, 35, a struggling sculptor and engraver. Only months later, on June 4, 1898, they married and ever afterward remained a devoted pair. Marriage marked a decisive turning in Roussel's life. She had married for love, not by arrangement as was still common in the bourgeoisie. And her husband soon converted her from Catholicism to freethinking and left-wing, anarchist-flavored politics. Marriage also brought her three traumatic childbirths between 1899 and 1904. A daughter Mireille Godet and a son Marcel Godet survived; another son, who nearly cost her her life, died at four months in 1901. As she later testified, her experiences in childbirth were critical in converting her to the cause of birth control—and they occurred at the very time (1900) she had fallen under the spell of birth control's leading advocate in France, Paul Robin (1837–1912).

Robin entered Roussel's life when his son married Godet's sister. At least half-seriously, Roussel called him "the new Christ." He was a teacher who had been driven abroad in 1865 for his socialist opinions—to Brussels, then Geneva, where he mingled with the anarchist Michael Bakunin, and London, where he became a close friend of Karl Marx. Returning to France after the Republican victory in 1879, he was put in charge of the Cempuis orphanage, near Paris, where he introduced coeducation of boys and girls, a radical idea. His activities in promoting birth control—he had joined the cause in London—led, however, to his firing in 1894 and made him something of a celebrity. In 1896, he founded the League of Human Regeneration and launched a campaign through lectures and the League's journal. Robin sought to turn Malthusianism away from conservatism and make family planning the base of a new, free humanity. He viewed it as an alternative to Marx's road to socialism. Overpopulation was not just an economic issue, but one of morals and liberty. Small families among the workers would lead to better health, more education, higher wages, and fewer soldiers to fight capitalism's wars.

Such ideas profoundly influenced Roussel's thinking. To them she added her views on other women's issues. In 1901, she began speaking on behalf of the League to any group or meeting that would sponsor her, notably freethinking, pacifist, and mixed masonic groups, and especially the People's University, a flourishing adult education network begun in 1898 by Georges Delherne. From 1901 to 1913 and after World War I until her death in 1922, Roussel delivered 236 addresses, sometimes to audiences numbering over 2,000, wrote some 200 articles for 46 different publications, and published 6 books. Her husband handled most of the arrangements, while her mother and an aunt cared for her children during her absences. Especially in the prewar years, Roussel spoke regularly in the provinces, which she found woefully unenlightened about women's concerns. Altogether, down to 1913 she went on tour ten times. In April–June 1905, her busiest stint, she delivered 34 speeches in 15 departments; from 1906 to 1910, she averaged six provincial lectures per year, usually one or two in small locales. At various times, she also spoke abroad, in Belgium, Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland.

As a public speaker, Nelly Roussel made a deep impression on her audiences. She was blessed with strikingly good looks—an oval face with a fine forehead; black, turned-up hair; deep-socketed brown eyes; a slender figure always dressed in black, which set off her luminously white skin. Her voice was in a low register, warm and pure. Described as "magnetic" and "seductive" at the podium, she gave an impression of energy combined with fragility. Her manner was spirited, her gestures vigorous, her hands and face expressive, her pronunciation refined, and her vocabulary impeccable, full of brilliant images. She spoke extemporaneously or from notes, thus preserving a freedom to respond to her audiences. The printed versions of her speeches were derived from stenographic notes, which she carefully reviewed. As a rule, she would end her speech with a reading of "Through Revolt," a theatrical scene she had written which was also sold at the door. She once observed that the most important element in speechmaking is complete command of the subject, followed by organization and apt, well-turned phrasing, the whole capped by a masterful delivery, without which all is lost. She had to a high degree the instincts and skills of a first-class debater. Her speeches are models of trenchant argumentation set forth in vigorous, readily understood language.

Despite her involvement with public issues, Roussel never joined a political party: "I have always been—I am so irremediably—an independent." But her sympathies lay almost entirely with the socialist left. She was no uncritical leftist, however. In the Couriau affair (1913), which concerned the unions' hostility to women workers, she subjected the unions and Marxian socialism to a feminist critique. Moreover, the feminist organizations she joined were moderate and reformist. She was an officer of the Fraternal Union of Women (UFF), member of the executive committee of the largest women's organization, the National Council of French Women (CNFF), and the Paris representative of Émile Darnaud's mostly provincial Republican Feminist Committee (CRF). She hoped to move them toward more radical positions, especially on birth control and abortion. The reformists, by far the majority in the women's movement, never did feel comfortable with her; her views confined her popularity mainly to the left-wing militants. Her warm personality, however, preserved her from the ostracism suffered by Madeleine Pelletier, a fellow radical.

Roussel's stance on birth control inevitably got her into a court case, which she lost. In 1906, a right-wing paper, L'Autorité, attacked neo-Malthusianism. She sued to force the paper to print her reply. Her letter advocated contraception not just for health reasons, which was legal, but also—without recommending chastity—to avoid the suffering of childbirth or to further a woman's general well-being. On May 22, the judge said the paper was not bound to print a reply which defended practices which are "immoral and anti-social" and which would "arrest the progress" of humanity and be "a cause of weakness and decadence" should the nation adopt them.

To advocate contraception in France in her day was to hoe a very hard row. Likewise with pacifism. As did most feminists, she saw a natural affinity between women and the peace movement. She opposed war and militarism during her whole career. War is a "crime," she said, a "social monster." In 1905, for example, she testified in favor of Gustave Hervé and other antimilitarists at their trial. In December 1914, with the First World War now raging, she confessed she didn't know which was strongest in her—sadness, anger, or disgust—when contemplating "a humanity capable of such a formidable and criminal folly." She expressed pity for the German people and regret that the French delegates left the 1915 meeting at The Hague of the International Alliance for Women's Suffrage after it transformed itself into a congress against war. The calls in France to ban Germany from the rest of humanity appalled her. She had to be careful, however, to avoid prosecution. She spoke at fund-raisers for the National Committee for Medical Dogs (they were used to find the wounded), and in L'Équité, from November 1915 until it folded in June 1916, she wrote sentimental columns about women's courage and the need to respect the weak, themes which did not sell well in the year of Verdun, writes Charles Sowerwine. Still, she shunned the mainstream. When the writer-politician Maurice Barrès won some support among women in 1916 for a proposal to grant the vote to war widows, she took her usual hard line: "We do not want to vote by proxy, vote as delegates, as substitutes. We want to vote as free citizens." And when a teacher, Hélène Brion, was tried in March 1918 for antiwar activities, Roussel was one of only a few (including Marguerite Durand and Séverine) who parted with most feminists and appeared as witnesses for her.

After the war, Roussel's radicalism and zeal, if anything, only increased. Applauding the Russian Revolution after the 1919 elections, Roussel called for her compatriots to become "bolsheviks"—although, even so, she did not join the Communist Party. Intense debates raged around three issues of the highest importance to her: peace, women's suffrage, and birth control. On the peace issue, she became outspoken to the last degree. The war had been plotted by an international band of capitalists—munitions makers, bankers, speculators—and the people had been led to support them by appeals to blind patriotism. The soldiers had not been heroes by going off to war but "cowards" for not opposing it. Moreover, they might not have gone at all if women had not insisted on praising them. Protestors

should have cried not so much "Down with war!" as "Down with the warriors!" Everyone, even front-line nurses, shared guilt for having supported, even indirectly, this mad slaughter.

As for the suffrage and birth-control issues, the campaigns were hot and the outcomes terribly discouraging. The Chamber of Deputies passed a suffrage bill only to see it die in the Senate. (Women would not receive the vote in France until 1944.) Meanwhile, a powerful, noisy, neo-natalist campaign urged having large families ("a social calamity," snapped Roussel, "repopulidolitry") to make up for the terrible battlefield losses and thus help protect the country from a far more populous Germany. It won passage of a law (1920) forbidding the giving of contraceptive information or advising or aiding abortion. To Roussel, these concerns were vital to women. She issued a call (first articulated by Marie Huot in 1892) for women to go on strike, a "womb strike" (grève des ventres), until their just demands for peace, civil rights, and control of their bodies were met. Her proposal only outraged most of the public, women included.

If you knew, O men, how much happier you will be when women will be happier!

—Nelly Roussel

Roussel continued to contribute articles, usually to La Voix des femmes (The Women's Voice). From April 1920 to June 1921, moreover, she spoke 21 times. But she was visibly failing. In 1921, she published a collection of poems, Ma Forêt (My Forest), which revealed her anguish and doubts. The sad truth was that near the end of the war she had contracted tuberculosis. Perhaps foreseeing her end, in 1921 she took up Alice Jouenne's project to found a school, "Women's Voice," to train speakers, "a phalanx of militants," as she described them, "active, audacious, well-informed … feminist, socialist, pacifist, internationalist."

The disease could not be stayed. Roussel's voice and pen faded from the scene, and on December 18, 1922, in her 45th year, she died. The women's movement in France had lost a powerful advocate at a time when it never needed one more. Not until the latter 1930s did it surge again to serious strength.

Nelly Roussel was most identified with the issue of birth control. Her signal achievement was to incorporate it into feminism generally to form an "integral" feminism, writes Elinor-Ann Accampo. Hers was not a popular cause: the CNNF, no less, was a major promoter of the anti-contraception law of 1920.

Roussel viewed the right to control one's own body as the foundation of rights to full citizenship. Nothing enraged her more than the spectacle of all-male legislators chosen only by men laying down laws on childbearing: "Ask us!" At the base of errors and prejudice about contraception she put women's ignorance, the (French) medical establishment's blind conservatism, and, above all, religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church's teachings. Contraception is contrary to "nature?" But "cruel Nature" (a constant in her thought) can be subjected through free choice, the foundation of Science and Progress. How, she asked, can taming the forces of reproduction be "immoral" when the use of vaccines and flood-control is not? The taming, for that matter, is essential for humanity's future: "At no time, in no country, and under no form of social organization will unlimited fecundity be possible."

Roussel was the only prominent feminist to emphasize the pain and risk of childbirth—"a dreadful tragedy that must be lived through to be understood in its unspeakable terror." It is for the woman "and no one else to decide if she is to become a mother. We are dealing with an individual right here, the most imprescriptible and most sacred of all." She roundly denied she was somehow opposed to motherhood as such; it should be, in fact, the most honored and best-recompensed of all social functions. Not motherhood, but poverty, ill-health, and conditions dangerous for childbirth are the enemies. She denied, too, that she advocated contraception so women could live lives of easy pleasure—a red-herring argument. Sexuality, she asserted, is a given in men but also in women, a statement which was still thought rather shocking. Unlike Madeleine Pelletier, another "integral" feminist, Roussel did not foresee or desire a unisex future; maternity marks a basic, unalterable difference between the sexes. Marriage, unfortunately, had become "a worm-eaten fortress," and free unions would be ideal. But she admitted that they were at present too likely to be unstable. As for abortion, it is a woman's right to decide the matter, although she regarded it as an extreme measure; as a rule, it is better to prevent than to cure.

Roussel was no one-issue fanatic. She spoke and wrote on the whole range of questions affecting women. Prominent among these was the suffrage, of course, although she was not one of the feminists who fixated on it; by itself, it was only "a key to unlock the door." Joining the National League for the Women's Vote (LNVF) because she had found the French Union for Women's Suffrage (UFSE) too timid, she became one of its stars (with Pelletier, Durand, Séverine, and Maria Vérone) and enthusiastically tore into the arguments against female suffrage. The right to vote confers a fundamental mark of human dignity in a democracy. But the Code Napoléon put women in the same legal category as lunatics, criminals, and children. Would women misuse the ballot? "The education of the voter comes with voting." What could women possibly add to bring more "incoherence, injustice, or stupidity to the structure you have built?" To an important thesis among leftists that women were too influenced by the Church, she asked acidly what they (the leftists) had ever done to detach them from religion: "the cabaret is for a man what the church is for a woman: a place of stupefaction and perversion. If you tell me … that the dévotes of the church are not ripe for emancipation, I shall reply that the drunks of the cabaret are not any more so!"

In the area of education, "the first chapter of all social issues" (and the subject of her first article, in 1899), she strongly supported coeducation. She blamed parents for trying to make children behave like themselves, miring them in traditional roles. Blaming parents was something new, anticipating Simone de Beauvoir's analysis. Regarding employment, she asserted that it is solely for women to decide if they are ill-suited to an occupation. Economic independence is a "vital necessity" for women's progress. As did most socialists, she favored eventual collectivization of household tasks, which professionals equipped with the new or soon-to-be-invented machines would do. She won no points among the socialists, however, when she described the parties as masculiniste on women's issues no matter what the party platforms said. Contrary to the Marxists, she maintained that winning the class struggle would not solve all the problems of women, "the proletariat of the proletariat." Simply because they are women, they find all social issues more complicated for them.

Across the whole spectrum of women's issues, Nelly Roussel took positions most of which by the end of the 20th century would seem all but self-evident. Courage was her most salient attribute. For a woman of her time to speak in public meant braving scorn and laughter simply for trying, and all the more so when speaking out on the subjects she chose. Her untimely death sorely wounded the cause of feminism.


Accampo, Elinor-Ann. "The Rhetoric of Reproduction and the Reconfiguration of Womanhood in the French Birth Control Movement, 1890–1920," in Journal of Family History. Vol. 21. July 1996, pp. 351–371.

Albistur, Maïté, and Daniel Armogathe, eds. Le Grief des femmes. Vol. 2: Anthologie des textes féministes du second empire à nos jours. Paris: Éditions Hier et Demain, 1978.

——. Histoire du féminisme français, du moyen âge à nos jours. Vol. 2: De l'empire napoléonienne à nos jours. Paris: Éditions des Femmes, 1977.

Bard, Christine. Les Filles de Marianne: Histoire des féminismes 1914–1940. Paris: Fayard, 1995.

Cova, Anne. "Féminisme et natalité: Nelly Roussel (1878–1922)," in History of European Ideas. Vol. 15, 1992, pp. 663–672.

——. "French Feminism and Maternity Theories and Policies, 1890–1918," in Gisela Bock and Pat Thane, eds., Maternity and Gender Politics: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare State, 1880s–1950s. NY: Routledge, 1991.

Hause, Steven, with Anne Kenney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'Égalité en marche: Le Féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Éditions de la Fondation nationale des sciences politques, 1989.

Offen, Karen. "Roussel, Nelly," in An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. Ed. Katherine M. Wilson. NY: Garland, 1991.

Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: Éditions Stock, 1978.

Roberts, Mary Louise. Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Ronsin, Francis. La Grève des ventres: Propagande néomalthusienne et baisse de la natalité en France, 19e–20esiècles. Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1980.

Roussel, Nelly. Derniers combats: Recueil d'articles et de discours. Préface de Han Ryner. Paris: L'Émancipatrice, 1932.

——. L'Éternelle sacrifiée. Maïté Albistur and Daniel Arbogathe, eds. Jette Kjaer, tr. Paris: Syros, 1979.

Sowerwine, Charles. Sisters or Citizens? Women and Socialism in France since 1876. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, and Steven C. Hause, eds. Feminism in the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary Anthology. Tr. Jette Kjaer, Lydia Willis, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Agulhon, Maurice. The French Republic, 1879–1992. Tr. Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1993.

Demeulenaere-Douyère, Christianne. Paul Robin (1837–1912): Un natalist de la liberté et du bonheur. Paris: Publisud, 1994.

McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

——. Sexuality and Social Order: The Debate over the Fertility of Women and Workers in France, 1770–1920. NY: Holmes & Meier, 1983.

McMillan, James F. Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Smith, Paul. Feminism in the Third Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.


Paris: Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Fonds Bouglé, dossier Nelly Roussel; Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, dossier Nelly Roussel.

David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)